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What's a 'Corporate' Charter?

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Jack and Julian continue their conversation about charters, looking particularly at the phrase "corporate charters."

Schneider: I want to follow up on a few threads that we began to work loose in our last conversation. And the one that I want to start with is on the topic of so-called "corporate" charters.

How are you defining a "corporate" approach? If it isn't the pursuit of profit, what exactly are its defining characteristics? Should we reject charters run by CMOs (charter management organizations), given the fact that such umbrella organizations tend to be structured in a corporate-style fashion without clear public control?

Because as much as I favor public input, I don't see high levels of public control in traditional district schools—not in voter turnout for school board elections, and certainly not in the management of districts. Additionally, I think we should consider the level of public control that is appropriate in education

Heilig: I use "corporate" as a term to describe the large chains and franchises that are dominating and leading the charter movement—KIPP, BASIS, Rocketship, Great Hearts, etc. They are schools that, as you said, are typically controlled externally to the communities in which they are located.

There are, of course, community-based charters. I mentioned previously Travis Heights charter school, which was founded by community and stakeholder groups. The question is: do we need corporations to run our schools or should we allow local community-based organizations the authority and resources to design and run schools? The recent political battle between the IDEA corporate chain of charters and local community groups in Austin was an example of this tension.

Schneider: Charters associated with CMOs—charter networks like KIPP, etc.—are, as you say, "franchises." They operate with local autonomy, while adhering to a set of general guidelines. But it's a bit misleading to say that this is equivalent to corporations running our schools. 

CMOs are much more like districts than they are like corporate boards. They provide curricular materials, conduct professional development, help with hiring, and oversee data collection. In short, they help build capacity for charters in the same way that the district helps build capacity for individual schools. And research on school improvement suggests that such support is an essential component of success.

Now, there are important questions to ask about CMOs. For instance, while the district operates within a single geographical area, CMOs often operate across vastly different contexts. The potential problem, then, is that schools will be structured in a one-size-fits-all manner indifferent to local differences—an ironic outcome given the fact that charters were originally envisioned as sites for experimentation.

But I want to pivot here and return us to a topic that came up in our last discussion—about equity and access for students. Because though it's true that charters often don't serve our most vulnerable students—either because they don't have qualified staff, or because some of their policies drive up attrition rates—I think it's also true that many charters have explicitly sought to serve students who didn't have access to an equal education in their district schools. Sure, in a perfect world the answer is to fix the district school. But what do we do in an imperfect world?

Heilig: I would argue that what we do in an imperfect world is to hold charters to the same standards (equity, access, and achievement) that we hold traditional public schools. No special favors or double standards. Being that charters are purportedly a better choice, if they fail at this mission and underperform traditional public schools, close them, no excuses.

Schneider: Charters should absolutely be held to the same standards as traditional public schools. But what, exactly, do you mean by that? Do you want to see them serving the same kinds of kids? Or are you talking explicitly about accountability testing? Or should we think beyond that?

I for instance, have visited a number of charters that produce truly stunning standardized test scores—the only outcome for which they are held accountable. Yet I have been equally stunned by the narrowness of the curriculum at some of those schools, the inadequacy of support staff, and the limited nature of their extracurricular programs.

Maybe we can talk a bit about this next week.

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